The Best of Matthew Power

The Longform guide to the late journalist’s best writing.

Journalist and author Matthew Power.
Journalist Matthew Power, who died Monday in Uganda.

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“The kind of stories I’ve gotten to do have involved fulfilling my childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life.”

Matthew Power, a friend and journalist who wrote for Harper’s, GQ, Men’s Journal, the Atavist and many others, died this week while on assignment in Uganda. He was 39.


In February 2013, Matt appeared on the Longform Podcast to discuss his stories, some favorites of which are below.

Mississippi Drift
• March 2008


A trip down the river with a group of anarchists.

For several years, beginning when I was six or seven, I played a hobo for Halloween. It was easy enough to put together. Oversize boots, a moth-eaten tweed jacket, and my dad’s busted felt hunting hat, which smelled of deer lure; finish it up with a beard scuffed on with a charcoal briquette, a handkerchief bindle tied to a hockey stick, an old empty bottle. I imagined a hobo’s life would be a fine thing. I would sleep in haystacks and do exactly what I wanted all the time.


Since then, I’ve had occasional fantasies of dropping out, and have even made some brief furtive bids at secession: a stint as a squatter in a crumbling South Bronx building, a stolen ride through Canada on a freight train. A handful of times I got myself arrested, the charges ranging from trespassing to disorderly conduct to minor drug possession. But I wasn’t a very good criminal, or nomad, and invariably I would return to the comforting banalities of ordinary life. I never disliked civilization intensely enough to endure the hardships of abandoning it, but periodically I would tire of routine, of feeling “cramped up and sivilized,” as Huck Finn put it, and I would light out for another diversion in the Territory.


Excuse Us While We Kiss The Sky
• March 2013

Navigating the sewers of London and summiting the peaks of Paris with a group of urban explorers.

At the stroke of one, the spotlights that bathed Notre Dame Cathedral in a noontime glare were finally flipped off, and a group of singing drunks gathered along the Left Bank brought out their congas. This provided excellent cover as Explo, Helen, Otter, and I crossed the Pont Saint-Louis to Île de la Cité and clambered around a corona of iron spikes forty feet above the Seine. We crossed a shaded park and scaled another spiked fence, careful not to snag backpacks heavy with camera equipment and enough mountaineering gear to assault the Matterhorn. We spoke in whispers as we pulled on climbing harnesses, and looked up through the darkness at the soaring Gothic buttresses and pinnacles of the irreplaceable monument of world heritage we were about to climb.


I felt a twinge of conscience. Or rather something more than a twinge. They warn you in journalism school—or so I’m told—about the risks of going too deep with the subjects of your work, of losing grasp of the dispassionate objectivity necessary to report a balanced story. Garrett had already dealt with this ethical quicksand by surfing gleefully across it, unashamed of his decision to “become a part of the culture under study,” as he put it. I stood before the same quagmire. It wasn’t really about breaking the law, as I’d already done that many times over in two different countries. Standing there at the base of the 850-year-old cathedral, I felt conflicted between my deep desire to climb it and my equally deep desire to not be splashed across the French tabloids—not to mention the French flagstones—as the idiot American who snapped off a gargoyle before plunging to his doom.


But Explo was already halfway up, and he soon anchored a climbing line to belay us from above. I let the tide ofAction! bear me along and started up the rope using special spelunking ascenders attached to my harness. I promised Explo to omit a few salient details about our route from this narrative; suffice it to say, nothing was harmed in the climb. But the intimacy with the building was startling. I passed so closely by a carved gargoyle I could see the furrows of its brow, could almost smell its breath. Atop the first roof we found ourselves in a long gallery of flying buttresses, which spanned outward like the landing struts of some alien spacecraft. Each buttress framed a fifty-foot arched stained-glass window, darkened from within, and as we climbed to the next level, I pulled myself up next to one. I spun slowly on the rope, and for a heart-stopping instant my shoulder rested gently against the glass. I was so close I could see the seams of lead that connected the thousands of pieces of colored glass, the end result of centuries of labor at the hands of nameless artisans. I felt in that moment I would rather fall than damage it.


One More Martyr in a Dirty War
Virgina Quarterly Review • June 2007

The life and death of Brad Will.

Brad Will always turned up where things were happening. Even to write that in the past tense seems strange, almost laughable, and nobody would laugh about it more than he would, with his conspiratorial raised-eyebrow chuckle, a laugh that let you in on a secret joke. To write it in the past tense negates the immortality that we often felt around each other. But he’s dead now, and so I have to write it that way, because it seems the only way to believe it enough so as to set some part of his story down. I still half-expect him to come rolling around the corner on his bike, dirty from traveling, eating a dumpster-dived bagel while gesticulating theatrically, recounting his latest adventures in Brazil or the South Bronx.


Island of Secrets
• November 2011

Searching for the mysterious tree kangaroo in one of the most remote places on Earth.

In Lane’s world, the abstract concept of risk was divided into two subcategories, perceived and actual. The idea of a comfort zone and an individual’s position relative to it is perhaps a peculiarly postmodern preoccupation: whole industries have been developed to remove customers safely from it, after all. Think of bungee jumping, roller coasters, zip lines. Innertubing across a volcanic lake home to crocodiles did the trick for me. But having come so far, I allowed no thought of turning back, and I resigned myself to Lane’s plan. We piled our packs at the center of the raft and clambered precariously aboard. Lane knelt in front, and Dylan and I sat crushed side by side at the rear, each forced to dangle a foot in the water. I stared down at the stick platform, a couple of inches above the deep blue water of the lake. “How many kangaroos do you want us to bring back?” shouted Lane to the crew of students and bois we were leaving behind. The equatorial sun blazed as we pushed off and paddled toward the jungle-covered mountains rising on the far shore of Lake Hargy.


The Cherry Tree Garden
• June 2008

Memories of squatting in the South Bronx.

When I contemplate the answers to those questions, I recall riding my bike, at sunset in winter, over the Willis Avenue Bridge and into the South Bronx. The long dusky light silhouetted the blocks and spires of Manhattan, and cast long shadows as I looked down into the Harlem River rail yards. The scene was desolate, weeds grew up between the sleepers and staghorn sumac wove itself through chain link and razor wire. From between a string of rusting boxcars, a mating pair of ring-necked pheasants strutted across the barren rail yard, elegant tail feathers trailing along behind, gorgeous even in the fading light. The two birds were immigrants, an introduced species made wild again by chance and instinct and necessity. They seemed like exiled regents returning to their kingdom.


Blood in the Sand
• January 2014

Investigating the murder of a Costa Rican conservationist.

Not everyone kept quiet, though. Following the murder, Vanessa Lizano, the founder of the Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary, dedicated herself to fighting for her fallen colleague’s legacy. I e-mailed her and asked if I could come visit, and she welcomed me.


I flew to San José two weeks after the killing, arriving at the sanctuary after dusk. Lizano, 36, unlocked a high gate adorned with a brightly painted butterfly. “Welcome to Moín,” she said in a theatrical voice, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. The property covered about a dozen acres of rainforest and was dotted with animal pens. Paintings of Costa Rica’s fauna adorned every surface. Lizano opened a pen and picked up a baby howler monkey, which wrapped its tail around her neck like a boa. “I keep expecting Jairo to just show up,” she said. “I guess I haven’t realized it yet.”


Lost in the Amazon
Men’s Journal
• June 2009

One man’s absurd quest to become the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon River—floods, electric eels, and machete-wielding natives be damned.

If all goes according to plan, somewhere on the banks of the mile-wide river I will rendezvous with a 33-year-old former British Army captain named Ed Stafford. But Stafford has warned me that in the Amazon things rarely go according to plan. He should know: Since April 2008 he has been on an expedition to be the first person in history to travel the entire 4,000-mile length of the Amazon River on foot, through the heart of the largest jungle on Earth. He’s attempting to walk every step of the river’s route from source to sea, wherever it is possible to walk. There are also several hundred tributaries he will need to cross using an inflatable raft he carries with him, and he must traverse three countries and the territories of dozens of indigenous tribes. In his expedition blog, Stafford writes: “Walking from the source to the sea is one of the last great feats of exploration.”


We live in an age of diminishing firsts, so those wishing to find fame or notoriety through adventure are forced into increasingly baroque categories: summiting Everest on prosthetic legs, or climbing Kilimanjaro on rollerblades. The Amazon has been run several times by kayaking expeditions, and a Slovenian named Martin Strel has even swum most of its length, but nobody has ever crossed it on foot. When I first read about Stafford’s mission, I immediately wondered what made Stafford believe he could actually make it.

Holy Soul
• February 2002

A youthful friendship with Allen Ginsberg.

During that last visit together in Cambridge, I sat for hours at the table and made little origami animals for Ginsberg. We watched The Simpsons. But there was none of the flaring, mysterious seduction of our earlier encounters. He never even mentioned them. I’ve wondered since that time if I should have gone to him in the night; if there was any youthful energy I could have imparted to help bring back some of his old strength. The last reserves of his old self seemed concentrated in his voice alone, which was as vibrant as always. And now, now he belongs to everyone. Not just to his love-boys, of whom I was but one of a legion (there are so many of us, wandering the Lower East Side with these tales.) But to all the fretful, hopeful humanity that he called his family. To all who’ve seen, in his words, the dearness of the vanishing moment-the beauty of an illusory garden, the chaos of the city, a night in bed-and who know that what he wrote thirty years ago about the role of poetry is also about the simple role of being alive:

“And what’s the work?” he told us. “Ease the pain of living.”

For more of Matthew Power’s writing, see his complete archive.